What Egyptian Female Pharaohs Taught Us

While the wives of Egyptian Pharaohs were powerful and highly regarded, few women achieved the status of sole rulers of Egypt. They all played significant parts in the ancient Egyptian history. Should women rule the world? If history is any indicator, the answer is definitely yes.

The Queens of Ancient Egypt

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Egyptologist Kara Cooney says that, in times of trouble, ancient Egypt turned to female leadership to rule and protect. The women of today may find that the past holds great lessons.

Female Leaders

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The sources of all modern human malignancies are generally the same: male leaders who want to maintain economic, political, and religious power no matter the cost. Mass shootings, pipe bombs, assassinations, and—over it all—climate change could easily be avoided. It seems that history shows a different outcome when women are in positions of power.

Lessons from the Past

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The ancient Egyptians believed in the wisdom of female rulers. Whenever faced with a political crisis, the ancient Egyptians chose a woman to fill the power, time and again—because they believed she was the least risky option. Placing women in power was often the best protection for the patriarchy in times of uncertainty for the ancient Egyptians.

Egypt’s Unique Conditions

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The kingdom of Egypt was very different to all the other states of the time. Because of natural boundaries of deserts and sea, Egypt was protected  from the constant invasions, war-lording, and aggression that Mesopotamia, Syria, Persia, Greece, or Rome endured. In these lands, if a young child took the throne, it would be an immediate call to military competition to seize it from him. Luckily, Egypt had different tendencies.

Egypt’s Female Pharaohs

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But in Egypt, sovereigns were revered as god-kings, regardless of age, and women protected them. Rather than see the child as an obstacle to power, mothers, aunts, sisters would defend the youths at the center of the wheel of power. This stabilizing tendency was employed repeatedly in Egypt’s history. 

Queen Merneith

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In the first dynasty (ca. 3000-2890 B.C.), when her husband King Djet died, her son, Den, was too young to rule Egypt and so Queen Merneith stepped into power. Instead of allowing an uncle to serve as regent and manipulate his nephew, she ruled on behalf of her young son. Merneith was the first documented queen regent who guided her son to the throne and insured stability in Egypt.

Neferusobek

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In the 12th dynasty (ca. 1985-1773 B.C.), when inbreeding (or other factors) meant there was no crown prince to take the throne at all, Neferusobek, the wife of the dead king, rose to power and guided Egypt until another dynasty was ready to rule. The queen built structures at Herakleopolis Magna, and also continued the funerary complex of Amenemhat III.

Hatshepsut

Photo: Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Queen Hatshepsut holds the title of the longest reign of a female ancient Egyptian ruler. In Dynasty 18 (ca. 1550-1295 B.C.) When the king died after only three years on the throne, a mere toddler became pharaoh; the boy’s aunt rose to power, and the era of Hatshepsut began. She dressed up in men’s clothing and wore a false beard. She led Egypt for more than two decades, and left the kingdom better than she found it.

Nefertiti

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Later in Dynasty 18, when King Akhenaten foisted religious extremism upon his people, he made his wife Nefertiti his co-ruler. Considered one of the most beautiful and powerful queens of Egypt. Her name means, “The beautiful one has come”. She must have been the safest option of holding power.

Tawosret

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In Dynasty 19 (1295-1186 B.C.), another woman, Queen Tawosret, was placed as regent for a boy (not her own son) and even allowed to rule as king after his death, but her reign was cut short by civil war.

Cleopatra

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Best known of all was Cleopatra of the Ptolemaic Dynasty (305-285 B.C.), who eliminated her siblings to take the throne, only to put all of her energies into creating a dynasty for her many children. In the end, even this seducer of Roman leaders ruled differently than her partner of the moment, Marc Antony. After much drama, conflict and romance between Egypt and Rome, she committed suicide at the age of 39. Cleopatra was the last ruler of Egypt before it became a Roman province in 30 BC.

Looking Forward

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History shows that the Egyptians used women to protect the patriarchy, to act as impromptu regents, placeholders, until the next man could fill the top spot on the social pyramid. They knew that women ruled differently from men, so they used that to their advantage. But these women of ancient Egypt were not able to transcend the patriarchal agenda and change the system itself. When their reigns ended, no matter how much power they held, the masculine Egyptian power structure remained intact.

There Might Be A Scientific Reason

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Cognitive scientists have discovered that the female brain is different from the male brain. Social scientists have found that men are most responsible for violent crimes, including rape and homicide. While women are less likely to commit mass murder, less inclined to start a war, more likely to be in touch with and express their emotions, and more interested in subtleties, rather than decisiveness. Perhaps ancient Egypt was attracted to these qualities in times of crisis

Woman in Positions of Power

Photo: Courtesy of Ancient Egypt Online

These queens challenge us to place women into political power, not as representatives of a patriarchal dynasty, but as women who bring the strengths womanhood into leadership roles. These women were able to do so much even without feminism, without a sisterhood, without their own agenda and without their own long term hold on power.

If Women Ruled The World

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We should look back to the powerful women of ancient Egypt who were the salvation of their people again and again. If today women were allowed to rule with compassion–using their emotions—that trait most demonized about women, the world would be a better place. This trait could be used to connect with others, to find compromise, to take the finger off the trigger and to look to a nuanced solution.  We should let ancient history guide us and let women be our salvation once more. If women ruled the world, politics would be more congenial, businesses would be more productive, and communities would be healthier.

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